Unearthing Maya's Mysteries

Published on Monday, 10 February 2014 23:24 - Written by Emily Guevara, eguevara@tylerpaper.com


Amid the picturesque views of farmland and sights and sounds of the rainforest, college students and volunteers gather each summer to unearth the past in Belize.

For 23 years, teams of people from around the world have visited the Central American country to work on learning more about the Maya civilization that once ruled in the area.

Throughout the years, they have made some significant discoveries.

An early find was a cache of almost 1,000 jade artifacts, among the largest finds in the world at the time. They have found dozens of Maya cities.

And last summer, the teams discovered a Maya mural at Tulix Muul. Although they don’t know exactly what it looks like, the plan is to find out this summer.

The Maya Research Program, a nonprofit organization affiliated with The University of Texas at Tyler, received a $25,000 grant from the Archaeological Institute of America.

The grant will help fund the conservation of the mural as well as an educational program about it.



Co-founded in 1992 by UT Tyler anthropology professor Dr. Thomas H. Guderjan, the Maya Research Program is a consortium of people from universities around the world that focus their efforts on understanding the Maya past.

Every summer, this consortium sends teams of people to Belize to do research, excavation and more with a goal of understanding the Maya past, Guderjan said.

For the first decade and most of the first 20 years, the teams worked at one site called Blue Creek. That site is closed to work, but there are three other sites where teams are working.

Each summer, as many as 70 people are working at any given time. This includes college students, volunteers, staff and collaborators from the other schools.

A small number of people who come are mid-career professionals or retirees, Guderjan said.

There are multiple goals for the program. First, researchers are trying to determine what processes were involved in the abandonment of Maya cities and the collapse of the civilization.

Second, they are trying to understand the Maya agricultural systems. Third, they are interested in what they can learn from ritual behavior.

The research is valuable for several reasons, Guderjan said. First, on the most basic level, it helps to fill in historical gaps and helps people understand more about the human past, which can broaden people’s perspective.

He said people typically have a very ethnocentric view of the world. But in reality many civilizations came before the present ones and are gone. And countries rose to dominance then declined.

“Lots of people are very concerned about the trajectory our society is taking,” he said. “Are we headed for a collapse?”



Using donated funds, Guderjan has purchased 90 acres of land for the purpose of preservation. He wants to buy 200 more acres.

He said he had the support of the local community leaders in making the first purchase.

“In the end, the best way to save a site is to own it,” he said.

One of the world’s best conservationists will come from the United Kingdom to work on the mural project this summer, Guderjan said.

Basically, the process will involve carefully peeling off a layer of white plaster to expose the mural underneath. Guderjan expects the work to take about three weeks.

Although the program has fostered much in the way of discoveries about the Maya past, it also has influenced the present for the students who are involved.

More than 2,000 students have gone through the program. Five students have written doctoral dissertations about the project and 20 have written their master’s thesis about it, Guderjan said. More than 100 people participate in the program every year.

“This was the most incredible experience of my life,” UT Tyler senior Kevin Austin, 24, of Tyler, who participated in the Maya Research Program’s archaeological field school in June, wrote in an email. “Not only did it affirm my choice of study as archaeology, it gave me priceless hands-on experience that … will benefit me throughout my career as a student and a scholar.”

After four weeks on the project, Austin and his team had uncovered an entire elite residence and walked on a preserved plaster floor that had not been seen for 1,000 years or more, he wrote.

Carson Carter, 22, of Monroe, La., a recent UT Tyler graduate, participated in a two-week session with the program in the summer of 2012.

The trip was his first time out of the country and he said it opened his eyes to the possibilities available to him.

He wants to become an archeologist and see the rest of the world, while in the process preserving and learning from the past.

“I believe that we’re helping restore the past for all of those people that live down there,” he said of their work in Belize.

UT Tyler graduate Kayla Cobble, 26, of Palestine, worked with the program in summer 2013. She said finding of artifacts was magical.

“You’re sifting through all of this dirt … when you actually start discovering the artifacts — it’s just such an amazing experience,” she said. “It’s like the reward for your work.”

Ms. Cobble plans to pursue a master’s degree in anthropology and plans to participate in the Maya Research Program again this summer for two sessions. She is hoping she can get a look at the mural while she’s there.

“I would say just for any student, even if you’re not a student or you’re interested in history or culture, I would encourage anyone who’s just thinking about it to just make the leap and go,” she said. “It is an investment that will just return to you all that you put into it and more.”